It is reported that No. 10 is concerned about the possibility of Nicola Sturgeon announcing a second Scottish independence referendum at the same time that Theresa May triggers Article 50. Indeed, today Sturgeon told May that she has a “cast-iron mandate” to call one. Together with the looming prospect of direct rule being re-imposed in Northern Ireland this does look like a terrifying constitutional trifecta. Does the government really need to worry, though?
It is true that since its loss in the 2014 independence referendum, the Scottish National Party has electorally gone from strength to strength. Sweeping the board in Scotland in the 2015 General Election, leaving only three MPs from other parties—one each for Labour, the Lib Dems and the Scottish Tories. On the bounce it won government in the Scottish Parliament for a third term. And it now has high hopes for May’s council elections. But the real prize has always been a second referendum.
The nationalists get very upset if Scotland is ever called a one party state. The more relevant accusation here is that the SNP is a one purpose party. Independence at any costs. Every opportunity is taken to talk about a second referendum. And Brexit has provided a plethora of platforms for this. The strategy is clear: normalise the concept of a “neverendum”—the referendum that is held again and again until you get the right result—by sheer volume of repetition.
There are, however real obstacles in the way of a second referendum. First, there is the little matter of what the SNP told Scots the last time round. The Scottish Government White Paper it published said:
It is the view of the current Scottish Government that the referendum is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
This was repeated by then First Minister Alex Salmond and his then deputy Nicola Sturgeon—there is a marvellous YouTube compilation of eight times when she makes this solemn promise.
Of course, like all normal politicians, Sturgeon reserves the right to break her promises. But that leads to the SNP’s second problem: it is an insurgent political force which, by definition, is not like all the rest. It is different. A new force. Except, apparently, when it comes to breaking its word.
Maybe this doesn’t matter. Perhaps…